March has been National Bed Month.
For me, this is an event that I can really get into, so to speak. I have always taken a professional and personal interest in sleep quality, even more so since having a child, when life and sleep can become so disrupted that you hardly know which way is up, let alone have the energy to venture there to find your bed.
There’s a wealth of research into how quality of sleep affects us, and many an argument as to how much of it we need. But the general consensus is that poor sleep equals poor health, reduced performance and less effective coping.
In the recovery field, there is a commonly used acronym – HALT. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s what you are supposed to stop and assess yourself for if you are struggling with cravings. I don’t know where it originated from but I’ve found it to be of immense value, not only working in the recovery field, but relevant to my action around my own wellbeing.
Although not necessarily easy, I find the first three to be the most immediately solvable issues. Hunger, of course, can be remedied by paying attention to diet and eating regularly. Anger, can be resolved by dealing with the situation, either directly or by finding ways of letting it go – counselling, meditation or physical activity for example. Loneliness can be a huge challenge for people – but Apps like Social Mirror can be of benefit, and most communities offer social groups if you are willing and able to get out there and engage. Tiredness, I think, can be the most challenging of these issues to control.
There are of course, many natural ways to improve the quality of your sleep. In recovery, the use of ‘sleep tea’, a combination of herbs such as chamomile and lavender is commonly used. Sour cherry juice has also been proffered as a proven natural way to improve sleep. Yoga and meditation is used for relaxation and to reduce anxiety. But how many of us, in recovery or elsewhere, make getting quality sleep a daily focus? If you are anything like me, sleeping is not the period of the day that I attend to the most, but it is probably what I should prioritise. Anxiety about specific events can keep me awake at night, and that is the time that a person needs sleep the most.
We see sleep problems a lot in this sector, especially in the period after people have detoxed from substances. Waiting for your body to reach a state of equilibrium again can be an arduous process, and people describe waking in a sweat following dreams where they have drunk alcohol or used drugs, when that is the exact thing they are working so hard to avoid. Often GPs will prescribe sleeping tablets, but these of course are not meant to be a long term solution, and do not serve to provide any sort of ‘sleep training’ or encourage us to think further about our own role in getting good sleep.
The New Economics Foundation created a list of five everyday actions that people can take to improve wellbeing. So much of our own work within Whole Person Recovery is anecdotal, but based on that, and my own experience, I would add a sixth ‘way to wellbeing’ – work to improve your sleep.
Perhaps, if we all spared thirty minutes a day to take action around our sleep – taking a warm bath before bed, meditating, writing down our thought summary of the day, or doing some active relaxation, our wakeful periods may be enhanced, and we could really focus on the other five ways.
Hopefully, you have managed to stay awake whilst reading this blog……………
What a treat to see Daniel Kahneman here in London on Tuesday night at the beautiful Methodist Central Hall, just next door to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.
image from How to: Acadmey
Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a charismatic speaker who explains complex ideas in a very accessible way making them relevant to a wide audience. Regular readers of the Social Brain blog will probably already be aware of the key concepts in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, including that we can be thought as having two “systems” of thinking.
For those not familiar with his work, there are many summaries and reviews of the book available online; this recent article out earlier this week gives a quick overview of the main idea of TFaS. And a very over-simplified explanation of these systems follows: Our System 1 is fast and automatic, these are gut reactions. Our System 2 is slower, requires effort, and is more deliberate. System 1 does a wonderful (or at least good-enough) job most of the time. System 2 often ‘endorses’ or goes along with System 1’s judgement or decision, although sometimes System 2 overrides our initial reaction. Kahneman’s decades of research has illustrated that while for the most part this job-sharing works quite well for us, problems can crop us when System 1 makes mistakes in its haste and then when System 2 fails to recognise and override them.
The book also describes other areas of closely-related research, including Prospect Theory and the difference between our Experiencing Self and Remembering Self. Prospect Theory offered economists a fresh way to understand utility, and one of its key ideas is that we are loss averse – losses sting more than gains feel good – a concept on which we based our headline and somewhat provocative recommendation in our recent publication Everyone Starts with an A, published last week.
The event on Tuesday was not the typical economics talk. The chair, comedian and TV personality David Baddiel, asked more philosophical questions than typically asked about the book (at least in the talks I have attended!), and the conversation turned towards such topics as dementia, atheism/religion, and wellbeing.
For example, using the ‘two selves’ distinction explained in the book, the effects of dementia could be thought of as a shift in balance from our remembering self to our experiencing self. Regarding religion, Kahneman and Baddiel discussed how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism). Kahneman continued by explaining that we have two ways of perceiving causality: physical and intentional. The conviction that intentions can have physical effects may provide an interesting way of looking at religion.
The discussion on wellbeing was particularly timely as this week was also the second annual International Day of Happiness (March 20). Kahneman explained that over the years he has reviewed his definition of wellbeing. He used to think that wellbeing was the sum of the quality of someone’s lived experiences. Now this has shifted to take both the experiencing and remembering selves into consideration: our subjective reflection on our everyday experiences and major life events matter too. People want to have good stories about themselves, which depends both on how you experience something in the moment and also how you remember experiencing it.
The 2000-seat hall was completely packed and the event was sold out. I think I spotted Lord Richard Layard, economist and founder of Action for Happiness, in the audience, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that Richard Dawkins was in attendance as well. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a video recording of the event, but if you can find one it would be well worth a watch. In Kahneman terms, my experiencing self enjoyed the evening, and my remembering self enjoyed and continues to enjoy it.
Chatting to the neighbours: makes us happier, saves lives, comes to the rescue when we lose our keys
At about 7.30am last Thursday I heard a tentative knock on my front door.
Standing on my doorstep, shivering in pyjamas and with a look of acute embarrassment on her face, was my new neighbour Carolina* from the studio flat downstairs. Her bathroom is across the hall from her flat, and she’d managed to lock herself out after going to the toilet without her keys. Critically, she had also managed to lock her keys and phone inside her flat, and was stranded in the stairwell.
I gave her my phone so she could call her office to explain that she’d be late. We have the same landlord so I called him to explain the situation, and invited her inside to wait while he drove a spare key over from Essex. I had to leave for work, but my girlfriend had a day off and so sat with Carolina for the next couple of hours and made her breakfast and tea. They chatted. They got along quite well.
The situation had initially felt all the more bizarre and awkward given that I’d only moved into the building that weekend, and had met her before this only once, as I was carrying furniture up the stairs on my moving day. I’ve lived in buildings before where I never spoke to – or even saw – my neighbours, but given that I now work on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme I thought I’d make an effort to practice what we preach, and made sure I chatted her when I spotted her. We didn’t speak about anything hugely exciting on that occasion – essentially we told each other our names and said hello – and it didn’t feel particularly important at the time. But how long would she have sat helplessly panicking in the hallway on Thursday if we had not bumped into each other and exchanged small talk earlier that week? Would she have knocked on my front door when she did, or would it have seemed too difficult to inconvenience somebody she had never met before in such an embarrassing situation?
This is partly what the founder of the Big Lunch, Tim Smit, means when he says that ‘Small talk is in fact ‘big talk’ – it’s the code or tool which enables us to overcome our shyness’. The Big Lunch have published research this month that they say shows that ‘the chattiest streets are the happiest streets’, with seven in ten people surveyed saying that simple conversations with their neighbours make them feel more in touch with their community – but with one in twenty reporting that they have never spoken to their neighbours at all. This is worrying because not having these kind of local connections might not just make us less happy – or leave us caught short when we forget our keys – but it can be highly damaging to our health as well.
Last week, the writer Will Storr wrote in the Guardian about his own reluctance to talk to the people around him, and about how he is trying to change this. Contrary to the popular image of British villagers coming together at times of adversity, he recounts being rude to an environment officer and having an argument with a neighbour who wanted to borrow sandbags during the recent flooding in Somerset where he lives. Prompted by these negative interactions he decides to learn more about loneliness and is told by a genome biologist that isolation has a similar mortality risk to smoking , and so he decides to make a conscious attempt at being friendlier to his neighbours:
‘That evening, the man fails to return my sandbags. I wonder if he might have done had I responded to him differently. Worried about the flood, which is now just steps from my door, I walk around the corner to find them being used to corral a stream of water into a bubbling drain. Under the irritated gaze of the affected homeowner, I lug them back, one by one. Then I stop and return. With a smile and an apology, I explain who I am and why I need them. We have a chat. As it turns out, he’s quite nice.’
This friendly small talk between people who live near each other are the kind of interactions that Talk To Me London, a new campaign group in the capital, want to see more of. It’s a simple aim, but we think it’s an important one and that’s why we worked with them to pilot their approach in south east London, and why we’ll be supporting them to raise funds for a city-wide launch on the RSA-curated section on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website. Watch out for that and get updates by following @talktomelondon on Twitter.
When I went back to my flat after work a few evenings ago, Carolina had left a little box of chocolates for my girlfriend and me as a thank you. Where in other places I have lived my neighbours have been strangers, now I have some form of connection with Carolina. We’ll look out for each other now and, who knows, maybe become friends. We might support each other in any future tenancy disputes about the building or the landlord. We might hit some bars to explore our new neighbourhood together. Or we might just keep a spare key for her in case she gets locked out again.
*Not her real name.
The RSA’s Social Mirror project was featured on BBC points west yesterday. Footage will be available online until 7pm tonight, and our slot starts around the 18 minute and 50 sec mark.
Social Mirror is a way of operationalising network analysis and wellbeing science to make tangible differences to peoples’ lives. In the Social Mirror: Community Prescriptions project, people waiting to see GPs in Knowle West, Bristol, are asked to complete a short questionnaire via an app on a tablet computer and are then given a ‘social prescription’. This directs them to community activities or groups such as coffee mornings, sports classes or local history clubs – instead of being prescribed drugs or other health interventions. It’s essentially a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, Social Mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interest: from a walking group to a photography class.
In the BBC Points West video I explain why Social Mirror is important, and why our human and community-based approach to health and social care demand management is so necessary and timely.
“We know that social isolation can be as bad for you as smoking, with effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease. It’s often very small changes that make big differences in our lives; and Social Mirror is that first step from being alone or feeling that you are not doing great things in your life, to feeling part of your community”
From small acorns, great oaks. What has been described by Radio 4’s Giles Fraser as a ‘small local project’ is one participants have claimed has made their ‘life is worth living’. One participant who was given a prescription for a walking group has never looked back. He says:
“It has changed my life. I would recommend it to anyone. I wasn’t doing anything; I’d been a recluse and for three days a week I wouldn’t go out of the flat and the weight was piling on. I’ve now lost a stone and I can talk to people quite freely which I couldn’t before.”
The benefits are also being felt by local activities. Mary Hall runs a lip-reading group at Knowle West Health Park for those with hearing loss. She has had referrals from Social Mirror and says her group really benefits those who attend. She explains:
“They come and meet other people like themselves and compare notes to their heart’s content – it’s much less isolating for them. I reckon I keep people out of doctors’ surgeries because of depression. They come once a week and we are like a family here.”
As I have said elsewhere, my hope is that one day Social Mirror and other community approaches that change social relations to transform economic and community potential will be available for all. For now, fingers crossed!
Filed under: Arts and Society, Design and Society, Social Economy
The first ever unMonastery launched this month in the city of Matera, in Southern Italy. Doing something new is messy. The path is unclear, doubt is a killer, and it’s somehow never easier to quit than when you are on the verge of something real.
2014 could be the year of unMonastery, and my mission, gladly accepted, is to help shape evaluation models and metrics that help us understand what it is and if it is working.
UnMonastery is place-based social innovation that throws a group of people into one place – currently Matera – and sees what happens. It takes issues facing the whole of Europe – youth unemployment, mismatched skills, brain drain to major cities, under-utilised buildings, depleted public resources –and offers up a secular, 21st century version of the monastery. People with skills and projects to offer are housed, fed and work out of a building that would be otherwise left empty.
Best suited to areas suffering brain drain and a lack of home-grown opportunities, the ‘unMonasterians’ are tasked with working with people from the local area to develop locally specific projects that respond to local needs and assets. For me the key question will be measuring whether the project is one that both preserves the sanity of its protagonists, and can be mapped to really engage with and become embedded in its local area. Without the wellbeing of those working in it, it becomes a workhouse, without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans.
The Matera unMonastery is situated in the ‘Sassi’ of Matera, a ridiculously picturesque setting in the labyrinthine ancient part of the city, where, since the troglodyte era, houses have been built into the local ‘tufo’,a calcarenitic rock that comes from marine sediments. Whilst fantastic, this setting will actually prove to be one of the first challenges for the unMonastery: Matera, the people, is not Matera, the beautiful and touristy Sassi.
The Matera unMonasterians were selected through an international open call in which people were encouraged to apply for residencies in Matera with projects that responded to local needs and interests, as had been set out following a series of co-production workshops. The final team comprises of projects that take us from building functional solar-panel trackers with local young people, to setting up water-filtering systems for urban farming. The skill-set of the unMonasterians spans coders, graphic designers, illustrators, engineers, social scientists, artists. Over the next four months their projects will focus both on Matera, and on unMonastery as a venture in its own right. UnMonastery favours total, brutal, transparency: you will able to follow its progress, with everything from project plan updates to budgets available online. If at all curious, you can meet the team and ask many questions today (!) from 10am UK-time, by following the hasthtag #unmon on twitter.
Progress so far?
Due to the iterative nature of building unMonastery, it was always hard to know what it would end up being. Born as an idea in the first EdgeRyders conference in Strasbourg, it only became real when Matera – currently a candidate for European City of Culture 2019 – stepped up as a host and funder. First Materans shaped unMonstery in their understanding of what Matera’s assets, resources and needs were; then the unMonastery applicants shaped unMonasery through the projects they proposed. And now, Matera and unMonasterians – sometimes the same thing – will shape each other.
So, how will we know if it is working?
Without the wellbeing of those working in it, #unMonastery becomes a workhouse; without local embeddedness it becomes a fun working holiday for some super-skilled Europeans
The job of the unMonasterians is now to work hard and be nice to each other – not too light a request when living and working in the same space as up to ten people for up to four months.
Using metrics developed in the RSA’s Connected Communities work, I am helping them develop ways of measuring how things are going, inside and out.
1. How are you? Social change is messy, and burn-out is often the cost. The unMonasterians will be asked to measure their levels of wellbeing, and make sure they have routines that allow for some version of the five ways to wellbeing and proper sleep.
2. Do you feel part of a community? RSA Connected Communities work has really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a community, of feeling accepted where you are.
3. Do you feel supported? It is important to know that you can go to others when you need, and our social connections are often the first thing to suffer when we move around. Even for those who live in Matera full-time, their new focus could disrupt those social connections that currently help them feel well.
4. How are you and your project linking in to the local area? This is the big mama of the questions. Even if our unMonasterians are happy, bright eyed and bushy tailed, without real local engagement unMonastery is a spring-break, not a new way of working. Using social network analysis, and possibly linking to unMonasterian Lucia‘s walking ethnographies, we will be tracking who the unMonasterians are working with, how this changes, and if this goes beyond the existing contacts of our contacts. Everywhere is a bubble: a key question will be whether we can burst ours.
2014 could be the year of the unMonastery, and unMonastery could be the start of something really excellant. Please do follow unMonastery on twitter, keep up to date with what they are doing here, and join them for an online twitterstorm at 10am today!
— Edgeryders (@edgeryders) February 8, 2014
Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.
You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia
The fabulous poster images are all by Anthony Burrill.
I ask this question a lot. I haven’t counted, but I suspect if I did I’d reach triple figures in an average week. Naturally people ask it of me too, and more often than not, I reply “not bad, thanks.” It’s a social ritual, and – if you think about it – quite a nice one: we’re registering to each other that we’re not just concerned about ourselves.
Much of the time, if I actually thought about it I’d answer differently. I might say, “I’m finding today a bit of a struggle.” Or perhaps I’d say, “truth be told, I’d rather be somewhere else than here.” Like most people, I sometimes find life stressful and draining, and for various periods over the years it’s become a serious problem. But unless I’m talking to my closest friends, I don’t comment on it that often.
According to the mental health campaign Time to Change (which is led by the charities Mind and Rethink), I’m not alone. Its aim is to end discrimination against those experiencing mental health problems, and remove the stigma that accompanies them. Today, it’s organising a day of events under the banner of “time to talk”, to persuade more people to have conversations about mental health.
You might know the figure (oft-cited but worth repeating) that one in four people are likely to experience mental illness in any given year; equally, though (as RSA Trustee Andy Gibson, who runs Mindapples, is fond of saying), we all have mental health, even if we don’t think of it that way. So, in that spirit, we marked the day at the RSA by having a drop-in breakfast this morning, where staff could find out more about the campaign and have a chat about their week.
Working here, I’ve always found it a very supportive environment, and there was lots of positivity about the campaign. At the same time, I spoke to one colleague about how difficult it can be to start a conversation about mental health — particularly with someone you don’t know closely — without feeling that it’s an imposition, or somehow inappropriate.
One of the things I like about Time to Change is that it addresses that challenge by inviting us to focus on the small things: like checking in with friends or colleagues to ask them how they are. It’s about recognising that we can be open about the difficulties that we face going about our lives, and that this openness means we can support each other better. It also helps combat the stigma that currently exists around mental health problems, which my late colleague Emma Lindley wrote about powerfully on this blog.
And giving support doesn’t mean that when someone tells you they’re having a bad day, you have to reply with helpful advice, or try and make them feel better. In fact, often that can be unhelpful. It can just mean acknowledging what they’ve said. (I can offer no better illustration of how important this can be than Brené Brown’s recent RSA Short on the difference between empathy and sympathy).
Of course, great idea though it is to have a day of conversations, what really matters is talking about mental health all through the year. At the RSA, my colleague Becca recently has been organising Randomised Coffee Trials for staff (an idea that originated at NESTA). Each week, everyone participating agrees to meet with someone, drawn at random, for a coffee to talk about anything they like.
This week my match is Theresa, our HR manager. We get on really well, so it won’t be difficult finding things to talk about. All the same, I’ll try and remember to listen carefully when I ask her how she’s doing – and be honest in return. If you try doing the same, why not let Time to Change know how you get on?
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. He’s @iamsamthomas on Twitter. For more information on how to get support with mental health problems, visit Time To Change’s list of help and support services.
One evening over the Christmas break, I found myself at the home of a friend and her partner, both of whom happen to be psychoanalysts. Over dinner, whilst attempting to steer the conversation away from work, we began discussing the role of storytelling in our lives; the social narratives we believe in, the stories we pass on to others and the ones that resonate at a personal level.
The conversation led us to conclude that whilst a good story will always have readers, a really powerful story, will inspire people to act. In the Fellowship department, we often discuss how to make this shift. When there is so much great material available, it can be difficult to know how to piece it all together and the power in a story can easily be lost.
At first glance, social change appears to lend itself well to narrative. For a start, there is natural beginning; if we are trying to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. The starting point has to be-
What exactly is happening here?
This is especially poignant when encountering subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about. Rachel Clare FRSA is Assistant Director at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which deals with the issue of male suicide. According to recent government statistics on mortality rates, suicide is a bigger cause of death in young men than HIV, traffic accidents and assault combined, with 77% of all cases of suicide in the UK every year being male. CALM was born from a simple need to generate greater awareness of the problem.
Once a problem is defined, we have to figure out the best way to solve it – how do we improve the world around us?
Monday night’s Fellows event RSA Engage demonstrated that within the Fellowship there is a wealth of ideas about how we can transition from the beginning to the middle; problem to potential solution. Amongst the seven Fellows who pitched their project at the event, was Richard Blissett FRSA. Richard was recommended for Fellowship by a previous Catalyst winner and in turn decided to apply for funding for his own project. Through RSA Catalyst, his digital tool Edukit is well on the way to helping teachers find the appropriate resources to support disadvantaged students, quickly and easily. For Richard, the how lies in getting the right tools to the right people.
However, for a modest enterprise like Edukit to earn a place in the grander narrative of social change, it must also create a story around itself. Tools will not reach people if it’s not clear why they’re relevant, so creating a strong, individual narrative is critical – it is not enough to be heard, you have to be understood.
New RSA Fellow Emily Farnworth founded her social business Counter Culture on precisely the understanding that powerful stories are the key to changing indiviual behaviour, yet when tackling complex issues such as poverty or climate change, a simple beginning, middle and end doesn’t always cut it.
Emily believes that ‘the only way to solve the world’s biggest problems in a meaningful way is to see all sides of an argument.’ Counter Culture was established to help businesses and charities reach their audiences through a more agile form of storytelling that incorporates multiple and differing perspectives.
This can be achieved in many different ways. Even if you don’t recognise it immediately, brands, charities and individuals are communicating with us all the time without ever needing to put pen to paper. New Fellow David Pope, filmmaker, consultant and member of the British Council’s Creative Economy Pool of Experts, is interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by new technologies because this evolution is creating opportunities for a more diverse range of voices and stories to reach wider audiences.
New mediums can transform the way an issue is presented and the type of people who can tell the story. An example -
In December, Mark Leruste FRSA joined the Fellowship. As well as being an ICF Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), he is a Country Manager for Movember, the infamous worldwide men’s health charity that invites men around the world to grow a moustache for 30 days in November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. This in itself proves that a serious message can be communicated through the power of a moustache.
A story can still carry weight even if the chronology is disjointed or the medium unconventional.
Movember shows that a life-threatening disease affecting a particular demographic can gather mass support using humour and facial hair. If that isn’t re-writing the story, I don’t know what is.
If you would like to find out more about any of the projects or Fellows mentioned above, or would like to know more about joining the Fellowship please contact email@example.com
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA
Adam Lent’s rallying cry for creativity met with strong tacit approval from the echo-chamber, and rightly so. What’s not to like? Creativity is a feel-good concept, tapping into to the value of human freedom, with pleasant undertones of productivity, individuality, and style.
No sane person would therefore come out against creativity consciously and explicitly, which is why Adam suggests many vested interests in big business and government are clearly anti-creative in practice, but won’t admit to it in those terms. But what if the fact that creativity is inherently unobjectionable poses a deeper problem for the RSA’s emerging world view?
Creativity is hollow and needs filling out:
I am reminded of Voltaire’s famous reply to the complaint that “Life is hard” – “Compared to what?”. Creativity doesn’t really make sense as a stand alone concept, and Voltaire’s response would be almost as stinging as a response to “Creativity is good”. Compared to being uncreative might is the obvious answer, but that just kicks the can further down the road.
Sooner or later you have to hook up a particular idea of creativity to some broader patterns of values, ideology and human nature which are much more open to dispute, and any inspiring organisational strategy will be explicit about those links.
Adam has begun to do that in terms of the concentrations of power and vested interests that we believe need to be challenged, but I think it’s important to keep in mind from the outset that we need to do more of that because ‘creativity’, as such, is hollow.
To make sense of this claim, consider the related point that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing(chocolate, wine, holidays…). You can sense the hollow nature of creativity when you ask whether there are optimal levels of creativity, and what the personal and social maturation of creativity would look like.
Adam is right that a lack of creativity can be stifling, but it is no less true that too much creativity could be chaotic, manic, even mad. The point is that the question about where you draw that line does not lend itself to a creative answer, but to an inherently political one, which is why we need to be clearer and more open about what promoting ‘the power to create’ entails.
Before we promote the growth of creativity let’s reflect on the fact that most forms of growth have natural limits.
Most forms of growth have natural limits. To give a related example, the most impressive critique of indefinite economic growth for its own sake is not that it is ecologically hazardous to a self-defeating extent(which it is) nor that it brings sharply diminishing if not vanishing or negative returns to wellbeing (the jury is out on which of those is closest to the truth) but that it’s simply absurd – measuring societal progress through indefinite economic growth makes no sense and has no meaning at a human scale, as the Skidelskies argue in their wonderful book: “How Much is Enough?”.
Just as we need to qualify the need for economic growth with a conception of economic maturity (a concept I picked up from Andrew Simms) we also need some idea of how much creativity is good for us and society. Otherwise this idea of everybody, everywhere, all the time, being as creative as possible, sounds absurd (not to mention exhausting) and will begin to feel like a panacea that is literally incredible.
Moreover, if we don’t clarify the scope and texture of creativity at the outset, RSA calls to ‘unleash’ the power to create will have a cheerleading groupthink quality to them, which are in danger of sounding ever so slightly creepy, and that is definitely not what Adam is advocating, nor what the RSA is or should be about.
(As a provocative comparison, consider Susan Cain’s celebrated TED talk on the value of introversion, where she recalls, with bemused horror, being at a summer camp where all the kids were forced to be more extroverted by being brought together to sing/chant: “Let’s all be rowdy!”).
Creativity: means, end, or a bit of both?
So when Adam says (in jest, I know!) “expect us all to be taking to the barricades yelling “Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité!” I see an instructive category mistake.
Liberty, equality and fraternity (for which we should probably read ‘solidarity’ in the early 21st century) are all contested ideas, but most forms of these concepts are typically viewed as ends in themselves(often somewhat incommensurate with each other) while creativity is surely more like a means towards the ends we care about, in which case the question remains: which ends?
As a non-partisan charity, does the RSA say we are passionate about being creative but ambivalent, indifferent or non-aligned on what the creativity leads to? Surely not.
However fuzzy, we do care about some form of the social good. Adam is right that creativity is in our DNA, but so is our focus on ‘undertakings for the publick good’ (wonderful spelling from our original eighteenth century enlightenment mission).
But here’s the thing: computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity. So if we are for creativity, what kinds of creativity are we against? Are there limits to how creative we should want people or society to be?
What are the nature of those limits in terms of human rights, ecological limits, levels of inequality and so forth – how does supporting ‘the power to create’ help us to draw those lines?
(There’s a separate argument to be made on how the emerging worldview links with cultural theory – at present it reads like a largely individualist view that is vulnerable to solidaristic and authoritarian critiques, i.e. it’s not ‘clumsy’ enough..).
computer hackers, unscrupulous marketeers, dodgy accountants and genocidal war criminals are notoriously creative, and we don’t want to be complicit in all those forms of creative activity.
The pragmatic response is to say the RSA focus is on creativity and we will lead the way by showing how it can be used for the social good. That’s fine, but it makes us sound more like the honest broker rather than the campaigning organising we are striving to be. To get to that transformative change, we need not so much to define creativity as to give it more definition.
Creativity: Individualism by stealth?
Adam refers to creativity in terms of “an act that is unique to an individual’s own capacities or vision (and…) the unique, pro-active and self-determined nature of the activity”. The argument is on relatively strong terrain when he argues, with Mill, that the quintessence of what it is to be a ‘free’ human being is to be ‘creative’, and it is useful to juxtapose that emancipating vision with the spread of mindless and passive consumption under late(st) capitalism. I also like the general idea of people being less passive and reactive and more pro-active and creative.
At the same time, at present ‘the power to create’ has an implicit individualist and libertarian emphasis, and I would like to see that made more explicit, if only because there are other readings of recent world events that don’t chime with this view.
I am not at all sure modern history appears to be unfolding towards creative economies full of self-generated value, because I think that is only one of many current trends, and by no means obviously the dominant one.
More generally, there are many counter-trends to the rise of the creative individual: Where is the occupy movement? Where is nationalism? Where is the Arab spring? There are also plenty of examples of Governments overreaching – what does the power to create tell us about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor?
What if social media is not just used to enhance creativity but also to support Government oppression, as Mozorov and others have argued it does? There are also many (majority of the British public) who want to see more Government, not less, for instance in their support for rail and energy nationalisation.
while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships
Finally, while some forms of creativity may be good for us, the key driver of wellbeing is the quality of our relationships, and for the last four years we have been arguing that the model of the self-directed individual is partial at best. If humans are, as I believe them to be, fundamentally social (see Transforming Behaviour Change, part one) there is still a place for individual initiative but the power in ‘power to create’ has to be grounded in relationships, and the purpose of creativity has to be about enhancing the range of quality of those relationships.
The call for more creativity is good, sound, and timely. But before that becomes our defining rallying cry, let’s clarify what kinds of creativity we want, and how much creativity we need, for the deeper and more political ends that we really care about.
“It’s almost as if there is this magic bullet that we all know about but [that is hard to] implement in public policy … the people around you completely condition how well you do in life, what you end up doing and how well you are feeling”
On Saturday I was invited to speak to BBC Radio Bristol’s Dr Phil Hammond about the Social Mirror project we are currently piloting in Knowle West, Bristol, with our local partner, the Knowle west Media Centre. Social Mirror is a project in which people waiting in their GP’s surgery are invited to carry out a short survey on a tablet computer that ‘diagnoses’ their levels of wellbeing and personal connectivity, and that can suggest local community prescriptions if there is a need. These community prescriptions can be anything from walking groups to Tai Chi to Woodworking.
Not for the first time, I was asked why the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce would “be doing good work like this” quite so close to the coal face, and quite so practically. It is easy to think that hyper-local projects might be too ‘small’ to be of interest to an organisation with such international reach, but it is only through trialling out our innovations in the real world that we can allow them to take real roots.
As Adam Lent – the RSA’s Action and Research Centre Director – laid out yesterday, the RSA has hoisted a new flag: the power to Create. Adding a new ending to the French enlightenment refrain - Liberté, Fraternité! Egalité! Créativité! – our interest in the power to create helps explain why an organisation such as the RSA might be interested in connecting isolated people in Bristol to activities in their area. As I explained to Doctor Hammond, social connections – who we know, who we rely on, who we get our information from – are almost the magic bullet; a friendly elephant in the room that no-one quite knows how to operate.
The truth is that who you know massively influences who end up being, just as you influence all those around you. In our research with 3000 people in deprived areas in England, we found that people‘s social connections affected their life satisfaction and sense that what did they did in life was worthwhile. Indeed, those people who did not have people they felt close to or who did not have people that might give them small-scale, practical help or that did not have any connections in the local area, had both life satisfaction and feelings of life being worthwhile that were lower in statistically significant ways, independently of other factors. For groups that might generally be at a wellbeing risk, for example older people or single parents, we often found that social support seemed a determining factor in their subjective wellbeing being either very positive or very negative.
If we are to open up the power to create – the ability to ‘act in ways that are unique to [your] own capacities or vision’ [in a] unique, pro-active and self-determined nature’ – then we need to start paying serious consideration to the effect of an individual’s social context on their understanding of their own capacities or vision. Like Sir Young’s originally satirical understanding of the term ‘meritocracy’, the power to create is not a phrase that we can accept uncritically, even as we welcome it into the arsenal of tools that we can use when seeking to help create the world we would like to live in.
The perception of owning this power to create – the power to be an actor in your life and not merely a participant – is not as widely distributed as the ability to create is. People often need a push, a spark, a catalyst. The act of doing, of interacting, of creating implies some level of believing that you are worth it. By connecting people to others and activities in their local area, by helping them open that front door and get out there, we ultimately might be that spark.
“I can’t say enough about [the social mirror project] because it has changed my life… if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before… I’ve stopped drinking alcohol -I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”
Social Mirror Project Participant
Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project, and leads the Social Mirror project.
You can find her on twitter: @la_gaia
Filed under: Design and Society, Innovation, Social Economy
This post has been re-blogged from the Nominet Trust Website
One of my favourite things is a picture of my Italian grandmother, my Nonna, when she was 20 years old. The war is over, and she is celebrating in a pleated skirt she had sown herself, whilst brandishing a sub-machine gun. Born in 1925 in a tiny hill-top hamlet north of Venice, her lifecycle takes us from the fallout from WWI, the rise of fascism as a political force, the extreme changes that faced Italy post WWII – from latrine outhouses to more cars than children in under 50 years – and the political jokers that we find ourselves with today.
The internet is some sort of magic… but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!
My nonna has worn many hats. Her dreams of being a teacher or accountant were scuppered at the tender age of 10 when her father died – malaria handing him over to pneumonia in the end. This daughter of petty bourgeoisie sharecroppers became a scullery maid then seamstress then resistance fighters’ runner then market trader. Despite being very tech-savvy for a woman of her time – good on a typewriter, she had cycled hundreds of kilometres at a time during the war and had learnt to drive very early on as one of the minority of women working after it – the computer and the internet had largely passed her by. Until now.
Now I’m networking my almost ninety-year-old Nonna up to noughties. It’s hard work. She distrusts and finds joy in the internet in equal measure. Each day is a new battle; reminding her where the skype button is, ruefully laughing each time she delightedly exclaims “I can see your face! How funny….” The internet is some sort of magic, granted, but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!
London to Milan is a very long way when it is your route to grandma. Whilst I know that she has family, friends and neighbours that support her those 782 miles away, there is always that feeling of guilt when I get up to leave. Beyond my nonna, we all know that more should be done to combat loneliness and social isolation, especially in older people. Scientists have found that feeling lonely over long periods of time can kill you: being emotionally isolated can be as fatal as smoking, and common illnesses that are made worse by loneliness include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular diseases.
We try to do our little bit to help out in the Social Mirror project: Social Mirror is a way of linking local people to local activities and groups, using local knowledge. Social Mirror is a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, social mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interests; anything from a walking group, to a photography class and much in-between!
My nonna is something of an inspiration for the Social Mirror project. Working with the wonderful Sue at the Knowle West Media Centre we have been using the magic of the internet to ‘plug’ mainly elderly isolated people into the magic that is local community. With developer delays and all the usual jazz the project has suffered from some ups and downs, however we all agree that the initial feedback coming in makes it all worthwhile.
One elderly gentleman has even gone from being largely alone to going to multiple walking groups a week. He has been so enthusiastic about the project that he agreed to speak to the Rev Giles Fraser about it for his upcoming series – Communities through Thick and Thin. Be sure to listen out for us on the 15th December, and do tell us what you think!
Original post here
The image has been taken from this Italian history timeline.